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3.0 out of 5 stars In the name of perspective..., April 7, 2012
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This review is from: The Social Conquest of Earth (Hardcover)
Wilson offers articulate sober insights into the human condition. We must digest these kinds of observations about ourselves, collectively and pan-culturally, to the point where we are actually empowered by the self-knowledge to do something about them; this seems our only hope to avoid escalating calamities for civilization and the biosphere.

However, Wilson's "revolutionary" views on how we evolved to our current condition are very suspect. This matters: not accurately understanding the basis of our condition in terms of its historical (evolutionary) causes may lessen our ability to navigate toward a real solution.

Therefore, anyone reading this book who is interested in its purported "revolutionary" scientific content, specifically, Wilson's claims that we are better off abandoning William Hamilton's inclusive fitness theory as an important basis for understanding the design of the human psyche, should have easy access to the responses of Dr. Wilson's peers. So, here you go. There are five pieces in the journal Nature, collected under the heading, "Brief Communications Arising,"

Nature v471, issue 7339, pp. E1-E9 (24 March 2011).

These articles are brief and very readable. These pages also include a response by Wilson and his coauthors that, as far as I can see, just ignores all the specific criticisms.

Nature Publishing Group should make the full text of these comments freely available to the public in electronic form, via, in my opinion. (I would put up links to the full pdf's myself, but Amazon would probably have to tear them down due to the copyright violation. My server would probably crash too.)

Additional evaluations of Wilson's argument (actually, that of Nowak, Tarnita, and Wilson, 2010, Nature 466, 1057-1062, plus much "Supplementary Information") were also published in Nature:

Nature v467, issue 7316, pp. 653-655 (7 October 2010);

Nature v467, issue 7316, p. 661 (7 October 2010, several short pieces of correspondence on this page);

Nature v471, issue 7338, pp. 294-295 (17 March 2011).

I tried putting up the direct URL's to all this, but Amazon does not allow external links.

In addition, you easily can get hold of the full text of this article from the open access journal Evolutionary Psychology: Evolutionary Psychology 10(1): 45-49, by Michael E. Price, 2012. Go to epjournal dot net on your browser. It is a very readable review of a recent book by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis which Wilson cites in support of his group selection thesis.

Wilson indicates a complete misunderstanding of the profoundly altruistic sentiments and behaviors individual selection for inclusive fitness maximization can cause to evolve in places where he implies that you need a genetic group selection process to obtain such traits.

Moreover, the notion that individuals sudden become "robotic" when they evolve traits designed for indirect reproduction, such as programs to stay home and raise siblings or other relatives instead of their own offspring, makes absolutely no sense. Such individuals are no more robotic and no more an extension of their parent's phenotype, than individuals unconsciously bound by programs designed to accomplish direct reproduction via their own offspring, which by the way are grandchildren for their parents.

For an delightfully enlightening and thorough "detox" after exposure to Wilson's theoretical..., uhh..., mess, or just for a truly modern, professional treatment of social evolution, I highly recommend Andrew F.G. Bourke's (2011) Principles of Social Evolution (Oxford Series in Ecology and Evolution). Bourke's book is succinct, lucid, and clearly shows the immense, still under-appreciated (!) utility of inclusive fitness theory in explaining cooperation, altruism, selfishness, and spite across all biological levels of organization - the six fundamental kinds of "individuals" on earth, including eusocial societies.

Whatever his motivations, Wilson clearly wishes to create some turbulence in the profession, which is always good in science. However, the general public must be helped to access perspectives that conflict with Wilson's and to appreciate more fully the hard work and genius of biologists other than himself. Wilson now seems content, if not happy, to dismiss them all, as on the Charlie Rose interview, as all being "stuck in a box," but without explaining the very high hurdles his own ideas about human evolution have to clear to be taken seriously. It is revealing that Wilson barely mentions complex (i.e., multi-partner, multi-currency) contractual reciprocity, the real basis for cooperative human social life, as an easy source of standard individual / kin selection for deeply altruistic impulses and actions (e.g, see a classic work by Richard Alexander (1987, reprinted 2009) The Biology of Moral Systems (Foundations of Human Behavior)). If Wilson did so, readers would be likely to see for themselves that there is not a single human experience or behavior mentioned in "Conquest" that needs an onerous group selectionist explanation.

Charlie Rose, whom I've watched quasi-religiously for years, except when he has those sports people on, did a terrible job interviewing Wilson several days ago concerning this book's main idea. The adoration quotient was just way too high. Rose should have other practicing evolutionary biologists on his program to provide a balanced perspective on this "revolution," the general topic of the evolution of altruism, and to highlight the wonderful contributions of other key scientists to, what is aptly termed, "The Second Darwinian Revolution" of the 1960's and 70's. That's when naturalists and organismal biologists en masse finally began to deeply understand Darwin's ideas and their heavy awesome implications. Wilson certainly wasted no effort in the Charlie Rose interview, or in the current book, to mention them or accurately characterize their great labors. For example, William Hamilton, who of course Wilson has to mention a lot, was as great and passionate a naturalist as Wilson, not some ecologically naive theoretician. Hamilton understood natural selection in all respects. Moreover, Hamilton did not stop developing inclusive fitness theory with his 1964 papers, as reading or listening to Wilson might lead one to believe; get hold of Narrow Roads of Gene Land: The Collected Papers of W. D. Hamilton Volume 1: Evolution of Social Behaviour (Narrow Roads of Gene Land Vol. 1)." Others, far more so than Wilson, who actually were responsible for the core ideas that gave us the aforementioned revolution of the 60's and 70's, all of whom Wilson sees fit to completely or largely ignore - one has to, with sadness, wonder why - include George Williams, George Price, Robert Trivers, John Maynard-Smith, and Richard Alexander, not to mention a large group of theoretically savvy ace empiricists.

Wilson should be using his not wholly undeserved position as one of the most popular and socially powerful organismal biologists on earth to make the public MORE aware of these human treasures. Hey, Mr. Rose, Robert Trivers recently had a book come out! The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life. Too scary?

My actual rating of "Conquest" is 2.5 stars, but I rounded up.

For more, see comments following this review and the review by Warren Criswell.

Dr. Paul J. Watson
Department of Biology
University of New Mexico
7 April 2012; revised 31 May 2012
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Showing 1-10 of 55 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Apr 8, 2012 9:33:16 AM PDT
Does not actually review the book.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 10, 2012 1:16:30 PM PDT

Posted on Apr 10, 2012 1:40:54 PM PDT
Mr. Wilson is not trying to introduce turbulence. Mr. Wilson is not ignoring the other scientists on kin selection. Mr. Wilson AGREES WITH THEM UP TO A POINT. The human condition of cooperation cannot be fully explained by kin selection. We started with kin selection but human groups eventually selected altruistic genes that spread through the world.. The human population was reduced to 500 to 1500 individuals 60,000 years ago. Lets say 1 tribe of mostly kin were very very successful because of excellent cooperation. They would have altruistic genes. These altruistic genes would spread because anyone who married into the tribe would have children with dominant altruistic genes. Meanwhile all other tribes who were poor cooperators died out because they could not get enough food or predators ate them.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 10, 2012 2:14:44 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Apr 15, 2012 2:30:25 AM PDT
Dear Spin Free: I urge you to read the comments from Nature which I pointed to in my original comment. This issue is complex. Briefly, nobody in the profession thinks that the human condition can be explained via kin selection alone and have not for a very long time - not ever really. So that's not an issue. What we have to explain human cooperation is an arms race for social and technological intelligence attributable to complex (i.e., multi-partner, multi-currency, both with shifting values) contractual reciprocity. (An important book that developed this was "The Biology of Moral Systems" by Richard Alexander, but also see Robert Trivers writings on reciprocal altruism, as well as Hamilton's and others.) On an inclusive fitness basis, this arms race has selected for wide-ranging highly contingent capacities for altruism and exploitation.

Nobody argues that *cultural* group selection has not been important in human evolution. Those cultures which were best constructed to make contractual reciprocity effective and efficient beat out other cultures. Now, cultures have shown some convergent evolution in this regard. For instance, religion is basically everywhere. These cultures are part of the human evolutionary environment. The result is a rather typical pan-cultural selection regime affecting individual inclusive fitness. Once established, these cultural environments exert strong selection, again on an inclusive fitness basis, on the humans living in them. In this way, *as environments*, cultures (groups) impact genetic evolution that augments our situational capacities for conflict and cooperation. This is pretty much the standard view as I have come to understand it, slowly, over the years.

Wilson IS trying to create turbulence, which is fine! (Watch that Charlie Rose interview!) I simply hope to help put his ideas in context for the general public, especially by pointing toward critiques published by scores of Dr. Wilson's peers (some of whom are my colleagues and mentors). I'll be glad to continue this conversation. One further point: even if group selection could have direct genetic effects on populations (doubtful because of gene flow between human groups, which renders it a weak selective force compared to individual selection/kin selection), it would not just select for altruism, which Hamilton pointed out long ago. Group selection entails groups competing with one another. As always, selection favors effectiveness and efficiency. Genetic group selection, if it exists, is as likely to select for terrible treatment of out-group members (e.g., genes enabling conditional, situation-specific genocidal attitudes and behavior) as it is saintly or Navy SEAL grade in-group altruism and sacrifice.

I read Wilson's "Sociobiology" cover-to-cover in high school. It helped set the course for my career. It was a wonderful summary of his own and many others' work, although he messed up the discussion of inclusive fitness and group selection there too, which confused many people. Anyway, don't anybody think I am a Wilson-hater. Far from it. Nevertheless, I have a duty to not just let the main thrust of this book go unchallenged, a duty that also has been felt by many if not most of my colleagues, as per, for example, the references provided.

Best wishes! -- Paul J. Watson, Biology Department, University of New Mexico.

PS: There is no such thing as a spin free human being.

Posted on Apr 11, 2012 7:59:09 AM PDT
Well, Dr. Watson does review the book--he says that it offers a strong thesis with no caveats and minimal mention of competing interpretations. He also admits that Wilson is competent and reasons from data.
There are lots of "grand syntheses" out there by erudite, competent people ("The Emperor's New Mind", "Guns, Germs, and Steel", "The Dinosaur Heresies") and one should pay attention to them, but it's also important to ask how the data fits in, whether there is adequate data for any "grand synthesis", and whether these are really the last word, especially if you aren't well versed in the subject matter. Dr. Watson is pointing this out.
In history, Barton (the Christian apologist author of "Lies about Thomas Jefferson You've Always Believed") can cherry-pick facts and quotes to argue that all the founders intended our country to be a Christian theocracy. People who don't read much history are blown away. E. O. Wilson is certainly not dishonest like Barton, but a synthesis like this is not the only thing one should read.
I don't think anyone who pays attention to cosmology, particle physics, quantum mechanics, or neuroscience, molecular biology, and genetics can think it's really time for a "grand synthesis". We can rule stuff out. But, there's a lot more out there we don't have a good handle on. For me, the value in books like this is listening to an expert discuss and interpret the data.
I appreciated this review, and I will try to get off my rear and read the book. I will also read the Nature citations.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 11, 2012 9:35:18 AM PDT
Thank you for this discussion. I have read all the books you mention but "The biology of moral systems" which I will read. I would like to add Darwin's books. Darwin has no problem with group selection. Darwin was the master at seeing the evidence for selection and evolution. Darwin did not start from a biased position. I believe we all now start with some bias. I am looking for the Charlie Rose interview no success yet. Maybe our differences are just a matter of degree. I and I believe Wilson and Darwin think human genetic group selection becomes weaker as groups mix. Cultural selection then becomes the stronger of the two; but at the dawn of humans genetic group selection is what prevented man from becoming extinct. I also will read the comments in nature. I still don't agree that Wilson is trying to cause turbulence. I believe the evolutionary biology community now looks at him as a heretic. Similar to the cathloic church and their heretics. Sociobiology caused similar issues. Oh, we do treat people outside our group as subhuman. I would like to continue this discussion.

Posted on Apr 12, 2012 9:29:54 AM PDT
Are the arguments in the book worth reading ? Even if you may not agree with them.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 12, 2012 5:45:18 PM PDT
IT IS ALWAYS WORTH READING SCIENTIFIC ARGUMENTS. Wilson has taken recent research and presented it with his conclusion. There are certain behaviors of man that can best be explained by survival of the most cooperating groups. Examples: religious suicide bombers, religious wars, mans quick hatred other groups are all behaviors to help the group against other groups. If evolution only selected for survival of selfish individuals why would an individual commit suicide for a religion. But this will only make sense if you believe in evolution. Darwin writes about group selection in his book "The descent of man"

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 12, 2012 6:18:43 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Apr 12, 2012 6:49:37 PM PDT
There is a new first edition of "Origin of Species" out that includes some short essays by Darwin, previously unpublished I think, in which he attempts to explain his main ideas. There is also a new book by D.N. Reznick, "The Origin Then and Now: An Interpretive Guide to the Origin of Species," which looks very good. But on that note, its good to recognize that since Darwin, despite his amazing far sighted genius, a lot has happened in evolutionary biology. He would cry with joy at the progress and sophistication that has been added to the field he gave birth to. There was neo-Darwinism, and then the so-called 2nd Darwinian revolution I referred to above. Amazing people contributed to those REAL advances. It would be an error to ignore or discount them.

Very few in my field would go along with the claim that Darwin was fine with group selection. Darwin did not have the neo-Darwinian quantitative genetic tools to evaluate the (in-)feasibility of direct group selection as a significant influence on any species' genetic evolution. Moreover, Darwin's writings are, to say the least, heavily weighted toward an indivdiual selectionist viewpoint. The implications of this probably were upsetting to him to some degree, and he certainly was quite worried about the reaction of others to those implications; mainly that organisms are designed to be selfishly and irrevocably designed to maximize reproduction (over the course of a lifetime), whatever other more proximate things they may be up to. That's why Darwin took so long to publish his theory; that and the related fact that he wanted to bring to bear such an enormous variety of evidence in favor of evolution by natural selection, which he did.

Darwin's very strong individual selectionist orientation also was a main reason he worried so much that the existence of altruism in nature ultimately could prove his theory incorrect. He made this fear very plain. Darwin wrote some things in "Origin" that could be interpreted as flirting with genetic group selection, as he strained to understand how altruism could evolve without even knowing about genes. But, Darwin explicitly left the explanation of altruism to future generations. W.D. Hamilton was key in pioneering an evolutionary explanation for altruism that, amazingly, was fully concordant with neo-Darwinism and individual selection, namely, inclusive fitness theory.

Inclusive fitness theory provides a richer understanding of how natural selection works, a more precise and insight-generating way of calculating what natural selection designs organisms to maximize; this is something that Wilson now seems to not understand; although, with that important deficiency in mind (please see massively multi-authored the Nature essays I recommended), there are some neat elements in Wilson's current book. One of those is the increased appreciation readers may get for the enormous amount of LUCK involved in pre-humans NOT going extinct and/or not proceeding down an evolutionary pathway that would have led to some very different creature than a modern human (as many other apes did, of course).

For anyone who wants an excellent modern primer on the evolution of social behavior which does devote some time to the specific (pseudo?)-controversy about inclusive fitness at play in Wilson's book, try this, it is excellent: "Principles of Social Evolution," 2011, by Andrew F.G. Bourke, Oxford University Press.

PS: Nobody has to use genetic group selection processes to explain the evolution of religious sacrifices. Inclusive fitness theory and modern reciprocity theory do a fine job.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 12, 2012 8:51:26 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Apr 12, 2012 9:02:40 PM PDT
I agree with modern inclusive fitness theory and modern reciprocity theory. But they cannot explain mans group behavior and hatred of other groups. A religious suicide bomber cannot be fully explained the these theories. I quote Darwin in the Descent of Man: "With strictly social animals, natural selection sometimes acts indirectly on the individual, through the preservation of variations which are beneficial only to the community. A community including a large number of well-endowed individuals increases in number and is victorious over other and less well-endowed communities; each separate member may gain no advantage over the other members of the same community." "In the long history of humankind those who learned to collaborate most effectively have prevailed."" When two tribes of primeval man, living in the same country, came into competition, if the one tribe included a greater number of courageous, sympathetic, and faithful members, who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to aid and defend each other, this tribe would without doubt succeed best and conquer the other. Let it be borne in mind how all important, in the never-ceasing wars of savages, fidelity and courage must be. The advantage which disciplined soldiers have over undisciplined hordes follows chiefly from the confidence which each man feels in his comrades. Obedience is of the highest value. Selfish and contentious people will not cohere, and without coherence nothing can be effected." " It must not be forgotten that although a high standard of morality gives but a slight advantage to each individual man over the other men in the same tribe, yet that an advancement in the standard of morality and an increase in the number of well-endowed men will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another. There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy , were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection."
There are many more quotes that I could use. I would like to add that Darwin also mentions that the weakness of a human individual would cause him to seek protection in groups. Man has no claws , large teeth, or strong muscles. Man would need the protection of the group to prevent him from being eaten. Once a group was selected because of the protection it provided against animals, it could very easily evolve into protection against other human groups. Please note the inclusive fitness is part of it.
We are saying that a tribe under intense pressure from climate change, food scarcity, predators, and competition from other human groups can only survive if it has a majority of members who have genes that lead each member to favor extreme cooperation. What happened 60,000 years ago was that a group of 500 to 1500 survived because of their cooperative genetic makeup and they populated the would. Now these genes are expressing themselves through hatred to other groups, constant warfare, and religious self sacrifice. DARWIN TALKS ABOUT ALL THE SELECTION FORCES IN MODERN BOOKS. HE WAS A MAN WHO COULD SEE IT ALL. HIS LACK OF GENETIC KNOWLEDGE WAS AN ADVANTAGE. HE EXPLAINED WHAT HE SAW. HE COULD SEE THAT EUROPEAN GROUPS WOULD CONQUER THE WORLD AND THAT AUSTRALIAN FAUNA WOULD BE AT AN EXTREME DISADVANTAGE
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